LUXOR: Lonely Wanderings in Egypt

In Zeina Durra‘s Luxor, nothing much happens. It is a poem of a movie, drifting patiently from moment to moment, allowing each scene to slowly unfold. It rewards both patience and focus in equal measure, although it doesn’t demand either. Instead, you feel almost like floating through the ether as you’re watching Andrea Riseborough‘s Hana casually moving around the eponymous Egyptian city, pondering her life. It is slow, meditative, and exacting. It can be, frankly, a drag to watch at moments, with the pacing as glacial as it is, but in other moments – especially from Riseborough – there is a tender, moving, and engrossing sense of humanity on display; of two lovers trying to recover the flame of their youth, the passion they once felt. “Don’t you miss how hopeful we once were?” Hana says at one point. And this, more than everything else, is the heart of Luxor.


Hana is a British doctor, burnt out from her experiences on the Syrian border, and disillusioned with life. She retreats to the Egyptian city of Luxor, where she once lived and loved. While there she tours the city, reminiscing on her life and attempting to reengage with an old flame, Sultan (Karim Saleh). Together, Hana and Sultan explore their separate lives while walking through the city, examining the loneliness they feel, and the sacrifices they’ve made in order to live the way they do. Neither of them have settled down; no marriage or children. Both are heavily work-focused, for good or ill. While Sultan seems content with his decisions, Hana now begins to wonder what it was all for. She is traumatised by the death and suffering she’s witnessed and you feel she’s in the city (and with Sultan) to heal her own wounds as she had healed the wounds of others. There is so much wistfulness surrounding them, so much internal conflict.

LUXOR: Lonely Wanderings in Egypt
source: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Interstitial title cards helpfully separate each segment of Luxor into chapters. In the first, Hana finds herself drinking at the hotel bar with a brash American (Michael Landes) whom she soon takes to bed. Somewhat regretting this decision later, she silently grabs her clothes and sneaks out of the room while he sleeps. Later, those same cards will tell us where Hana goes and what she encounters there. It’s a neat little bookmark that works well for a movie that is ostensibly nothing more than moments in time; reflections of a life that now seems non-existent to Hana.

Although Hana is stoic and reserved when we meet her, that facade soon melts away when she is with Sultan. Saleh‘s easily likable and charismatic Sultan opens Hana up and through the cracks in her veneer, we get to see more of who she is. The relationship between Hana and Sultan is central to Luxor, and both Riseborough and Saleh carry it perfectly. Their chemistry together is sweetly charming. They are quietly endearing, tiptoeing around each other at first in a careful way, each trying to sense the other out. Riseborough plays Hana with the typical moony conflicted nature that recalls Scarlett Johannson in Lost in Translation, but she’s great at letting little moments of vulnerability through. Saleh meanwhile has an infectious smile and a playful manner, which is contrasted well against Hana’s more jaded and cynical nature. There’s a late scene that sees Hana dancing in the hotel and it’s almost shocking when it happens, as she has been so tightly wound up until that point.

Hana + Sultan

Initially, their romance is slight and cautious. Throughout the first half, they readjust to one another, slowly teasing out each other’s thoughts. By the second half, we dig more into their past (in an almost literal sense, Sultan being an archaeologist) and witness the minutiae of internal conflicts that often mar relationships. By the third act we sense there has a shift between them, but with the sparse dialogue and the lack of tension, it feels perhaps a little underwhelming when it comes. Although both Riseborough and Saleh are great at bringing out their characters in small doses, making you care for them, cultivating a background that feels realistic and natural, the lack of narrative heft means the viewer is robbed of any real catharsis from their coupling. It is perhaps not Durra‘s intention in any case, but it’s hard not to feel like it might have made for a more compelling pay-off.

LUXOR: Lonely Wanderings in Egypt
source: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Elsewhere, Zelmira Gainza‘s cinematography is starkly beautiful. The city of Luxor is captured in all its ancient glory, sand-blown and almost mythical at times. Ancient hieroglyphs cover walls, the denizens of the city wander meekly in the background, and the camera slowly pans through all of it, as though trying to savour each and every moment. It’s a gorgeous travelogue of a movie, enough to convince one to make the journey to this small corner of the world, and smartly seems to match the broody melancholia that Hana herself is feeling.


To be sure, Luxor will test the patience of some. It is slow-paced, sometimes frustratingly so, and the central romance doesn’t quite have the pay-off that would make it worth the effort. However, both Riseborough and Saleh are excellent and exude such great chemistry together that the moments they connect are the ones which lift Luxor up; alongside this is the gorgeous cinematography which highlights the beautiful city which gave its name to the movie, and ensures that – if nothing else – viewers will find it captivating.

Ultimately, it is a story of wistful regrets and the trauma of life. A delicate snapshot into one couple trying to make sense of it all. For this alone, it is a beautiful watch and if you can forgive the slowness and allow yourself to sink into it, Luxor will reward that patience with a lovely, unsentimental look at life, which is well worth the price of admission.

Luxor is one among a number of movies featuring a city as a central character. Can you think of any others? Let us know in the comments below!

Luxor will be released on Digital and VOD in the US on December 4th.


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